History holds Biden may be the right man for the moment

President-elect Joe Biden
President-elect Joe Biden speaks after the Electoral College formally elected him as president, Dec. 14, 2020, at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del.
(Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)

Bland. Familiar. Experienced. A member of WWII’s Silent Generation in a country where there are more millennials and Gen Zers than Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and the rest of the population combined.

America’s heart may be elsewhere — much of the right ventricle with President Trump, the left ventricle with Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont — but based on history, maybe President-elect Joe Biden is the leader for the moment.

Great Britain wanted — maybe it needed — steady Prime Minister Clement Attlee after fiery Winston Churchill. The United States needed— though maybe didn’t precisely want — comforting President Ford after the contentious Richard Nixon. It wanted — though it is hard to contemplate that it needed — racy but reassuring President Harding after cerebral but crusading Woodrow Wilson.

Such stark transitions don’t always work. And yet in a nation that worships youth, that elected John F. Kennedy to succeed Dwight D. Eisenhower — literally selecting a lieutenant to follow a five-star general — history may smile on America’s choice of an elder statesman to follow a president with no diplomatic instincts or skills.


Indeed, there actually could be real value in having a figure like Biden as president at this moment in history.

There are so many elements of America today that need to be fixed — restoring its sense of comity, trust in government and confidence at home and abroad — that it may take someone with extraordinary experience and personal relationships to put it all back together.

Who but Biden could walk into any city in the country and know the key people to deal with, and get along well with them? Step into the Capitol and know half the legislators personally, a huge asset when trying to forge an urgently needed compromise? Who else — not Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, not Massachusetts’ Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren — has extensive experience with foreign leaders and the ability to deal with them forcefully, knowledgeably and with diplomacy?

There may be those who prize the notion of government doing as little as possible, but Biden knows how the White House works, both its big sticks of persuasion and its hidden cubbyholes of power. And many of the elements that some folks — Democrats in the primary season, Republicans in the general election — worried about when Biden emerged as a serious presidential contender, like his age and the fact he’s been in government so long, may be the exact tools needed at this difficult historical juncture.

In fact, history suggests experience is often the attribute from which America benefits most during times of acute stress.

When George Washington came out of retirement to serve as the first president, he was 57 — as much the grandfather of the country as its paterfamilias at a time when the average life expectancy for a white male in America was 38 years. Washington was highly trusted precisely because he did not covet power but instead sought to surmount the political divisions separating Federalists and Anti-Federalists, the better to forge a harmonious new nation.


Washington established a deferential yet firm relationship with Congress. He nudged through a dicey Proclamation of Neutrality to stay out of the conflict between France and England but had the diplomatic sense to leave it to “the wisdom of Congress to correct, improve or enforce the policy,” leading lawmakers to pass the Neutrality Act of 1794 and accomplish his goal.

Washington eschewed a third term in office; Americans now customarily cite his repeated reluctance to seize or retain power — a virtue that astonished England’s King George III — as a bold example that the office of the presidency is bigger than any one person, and that an orderly transfer of power is the mark of a mature nation and an essential ingredient of governmental continuity.

Some 178 years later, Gerald Ford, on the verge of retirement from the House of Representatives after 13 terms, was thrust into the presidency when Nixon selected him as vice president and then resigned during the maelstrom of the Watergate crisis. A steady, no-frills son of the Midwest, the political figure who described himself as “a Ford, not a Lincoln” turned out to be the perfect man for the moment.

With the nation torn apart by Watergate and scarred by a deep distrust of government — an atmosphere hauntingly similar to today’s political climate — Ford focused on healing the nation, later earning the Profile in Courage Award for his governance in a time of national stress.

And President Reagan, who entered the national stage amid fears of Russian threats abroad and a hostage crisis in Iran, faced assertions that he was too old to be president.

At age 73, he famously quipped during one of his 1984 debates with Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale that he was “not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Reagan survived an assassination attempt, cancer surgery and questions about his intellectual acuity — and now is regarded as an iconic model of conservatism and statesmanship.


It can happen again.